House Republicans accuse Cohen of failing to register as foreign agent in fiery hearing
During Michael Cohen’s explosive House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing Wednesday, Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) questioned the longtime personal lawyer for President Donald Trump over money he took from foreign entities to allegedly provide access to the White House.
Cohen acknowledged taking in money from companies — including multiple foreign companies — while still advising Trump but denied attempting to influence the Trump administration. Those payments include money from Kazakhstan-based BTA Bank and Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis. Most of the arrangements were paid through Essential Consultants LLC, a shell corporation Cohen formed in 2016 that was used for the $130,000 “hush money” payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
Cohen insisted on Wednesday he was paid only to advise on the “enigma” that is Trump, claiming he “did no lobbying.”
While many of Cohen’s consulting activities that have come under scrutiny stemmed from agreements with domestic private entities that fall into a widely exploited “loophole” in the Lobbying Disclosure Act that allows for unregistered “shadow” lobbyists, Cohen’s activities tied to foreign interests raise more questions due to the broader scope of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
Anyone who engages in “quasi-political activities” covered by FARA on behalf of a foreign principal is required to register as a foreign agent. The broad range of activities that would trigger this requirement includes more than just direct lobbying, also covering some public relations campaigns and other types of influence operations.
A CNN report said Novartis paid Cohen $1.2 million for “promised access to the White House on health care policy,” and was subsequently contacted by the special counsel’s office in November 2017. During Wednesday’s hearing, Meadows said clients bragged that paying Cohen was “almost as if we were hiring a lobbyist,” despite the fact that Cohen never registered under FARA.
Cohen said he never lobbied for any companies. He assured Meadows, “Each and every contact” contained the clause, “I do not lobby and I do not do government relations work.”
In a response to questions about BTA Bank, Cohen said he was paid by the bank to help locate more than $4.6 billion stolen by its former chairman Mukhtar Ablyazov. BTA claims that some of the money stolen by Ablyazov was laundered through Trump properties. BTA paid a firm owned by Trump associate Felix Sater, who formerly worked with associates of Ablyazov, to help with the case, but said it didn’t know Sater owned the firm.
Cohen did not answer Meadows’ final question about whether he contacted members of the government to lobby on behalf of any aspect of his contracts.
“I don’t know what you’re referring to, sir,” he said.
Meadows attempted to get unanimous consent from the committee to look into a potential criminal referral for violation of FARA during the next meeting but received an objection.
The LDA exemption does allow some foreign agents for foreign private entities to file lobbying disclosures with the with the House Clerk’s Office and Secretary of the Senate. No lobbying registration paperwork is on file for Cohen with either office.
Legal consulting is also generally exempt from FARA, but any quasi-political services performed by a lobbyist or lawyer on top of legal consulting would generally still need to be reported. In some circumstances, foreign agents have attempted to skirt reporting requirements by claiming that public relations or lobbying services were provided pro bono on top of legal consulting. However, FARA requires registration for activities that fall under its purview even if no money is exchanged.
Meadows’ tough questions came following a Feb. 21 letter from committee ranking member Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) to Cohen’s attorney Lanny Davis requesting documents and communications related to “Cohen’s lobbying and/or consulting agreements.”
The letter notes Cohen inked consulting deals with a number of companies, including AT&T, Korea Aerospace Industries and Columbus Nova, a Russian oligarch-linked company, while working for Trump.
Cohen’s other ties to foreign interests seeking to curry influence in the Trump administration have also come under fire with claims ranging from hundreds of thousands in reported payments to push a deal allowing a Qatari official to invest in a U.S. nuclear facility and a six-figure real-estate brokerage fee for representing a Qatar royal family member’s company to his attorneys’ recent work as foreign agents.
In 2017, Cohen’s attorney Stephen Ryan registered as a foreign agent for the Qatari government and its ambassador, who was at the 2016 Trump Tower meeting the same month Cohen allegedly asked Qatar for a $1 million payment in exchange for “insights” into the Trump administration. The firm co-founded by Cohen’s other attorney, Lanny Davis, registered as a foreign agent for Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash — a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin also tied to Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort — the prior year.
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